There's no denying that Alex Rodriguez was, is, and will continue to be the focal point of this Yankee Spring Training. We all knew that was going to happen whether we wanted it to or not, and we all knew that we were going to pick a side on the "for A-Rod" and "against A-Rod" line. The situation with the MSM crew and the newspaper back pages is what it is when it comes to those sides. What really matters is whether or not the guy can still play and stay healthy enough to play. That's the logical, rational, intelligent stance to take as a fan or writer, and that's the stance we try to take here at IIATMS in every A-Rod post we write. With that in mind, and keeping in mind the previous point about A-Rod being the undeniable focal point, I'd like to spend some time analyzing his early spring performance. It's a very small sample size, but when you're talking about a guy attempting a comeback in the context that A-Rod is I think there's a little more value than usual in those small samples. So far, I think you'd be hard pressed to say the results of A-Rod's initial small sample have been anything but positive.
Statistically that sample breaks down as follows: 9 AB, 4 H, 1 2B, 0 R, 1 RBI, 2 K, 2 BB. That's a .444/.545/.556 slash line, good for 10th best OPS on the team through the first 8 games. At face value those numbers look really good, but the small sample reality of them tells a more accurate story. 3 of A-Rod's 4 hits have been singles and they've all been softly lined or grounded into the outfield. His double wasn't a scorching line drive into the left-center gap either. It was a bloop shot down the right field line that the outfielder lost in the sun, let bounce inside the foul line, and then skipped into the stands. As good as he may have looked in BP sessions, that has yet to translate to game situation hitting.
Not that that should come as a surprise. We're talking about an older player who's been away from game action for over a calendar year, and hasn't had much game action to his credit in general over the past few years. There's a certain amount of natural age-related skill regression that's going to come with being a player A-Rod's age, and that regression line is surely going to be impacted somewhat by his extra time away. That most of his bat-on-ball contact thus far has been weak suggests that he doesn't have his timing down at the plate yet and also that he probably has lost some bat speed and power.
At the same time, the fact that he is making a lot of contact and drawing walks suggests that his natural skill set might not be complete deteriorated. A-Rod still appears to be able to recognize what pitches to swing at and what pitches to take, and his feel of the strike zone and natural baseball instincts haven't abandoned him. Take his second base hit yesterday for example. The Rays shifted against him and left the entire right side of the infield open. A-Rod got a first pitch offspeed pitch low and away that caught just enough of the plate and he simply squared the ball up and hit it to the spot that the defense had vacated. Look at his swing at the point of impact:
He's not over-swinging, he's not trying to pull the ball, he's just covering the outside of the plate in anticipation of the Rays pitching him there, letting the ball get a little deeper in the strike zone, and poking it into right field. It was a smart hitting approach and solid execution by a talented, experienced, Major League hitter.
Don't sleep on that little backhand play he made against the Nats on Sunday either.
He didn't have to move very far, but he still looked smooth judging the hop, moving his body into position to make the play, and firing a strong throw across the diamond. All the natural third base instincts were in play there and A-Rod showed that he's still got plenty of those in the tank. He read the play correctly, timed his movements perfectly, and made clean and smooth motions to field and throw the ball. Like Alex said after that game, we shouldn't expect much out of him in the way of range and highlight-reel defensive material. But if he can move enough to make the plays close to him, that should be enough for Joe to have confidence using him at third every now and then.
All in all, I think it's fair to say that A-Rod's first few ST games have given us some of what we expected and some of what we didn't. The weak contact on balls in play doesn't come as a surprise, but I honestly didn't expect him to get on base this many times in his first 4 games and I didn't expect him to even be playing in this many games and playing back-to-back so early. That more than anything else is the biggest takeaway from this first week. Alex came into camp in great physical shape and it doesn't look like those were just show muscles. He's in really good baseball shape, his body is feeling up to the task of playing semi-regularly from the start, and so far it's holding up to the strain of playing in those games. Time well tell if the weak early contact is more timing and rust or loss of speed and power, but so far so good for the old A-Horse.